[February 13, 2006]

Accidental shooting raises issues about humor in potential tragedy

(St. Louis Post-Dispatch (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) ST. LOUIS _ Sam Fox, a St. Louis County businessman and major Republican donor, has hunted with Vice President Dick Cheney a half-dozen times.

They've shot ducks in Arkansas and wild game in Pennsylvania. Fox even hopes to go hunting with Cheney again, despite the now-famous incident on Saturday in which the vice president shot a fellow hunter on a private ranch in Texas.

"Cheney is a seasoned and safe _ very safe _ shooter," Fox said. "He follows all the rules of safety."

The vice president's hunting accident has electrified the Internet, talk radio and chatter around office water coolers. The incident has raised questions about whether hunting is safe, who is to blame and even has people wondering, is it OK to laugh at all this?


Fox was not surprised by the accident. Hunting for quail, which Cheney was aiming for when he opened fire Saturday afternoon, can be extremely dangerous. Fox knows firsthand. Two decades ago, Fox suffered minor injuries when a fellow quail hunter accidentally sprayed him with birdshot.

Quail hunting typically involves dogs flushing the small, chickenlike birds from hiding spots in low brush. The dogs freeze. Hunters stand ready to fire. Then the quail are flushed out. They scatter and fly out at about shoulder-height, zooming in all directions.

"That's what makes it dangerous," Fox said. "It's all very quick."

Cheney was hunting with a 28-gauge shotgun that fires birdshot _ a blast of tiny pellets. He shot fellow hunter Harry Whittington, 78, in the head, face and neck. Whittington, a prominent attorney in Austin, Texas, stood about 30 feet away when he was hit. He was in stable condition Monday night at a hospital Corpus Christi, Texas.

Hunting experts have disagreed about who was to blame. Some said it is the shooter's responsibility to avoid hitting fellow hunters.

"We always stress to anybody that before you make any kind of a shot, it's incumbent upon the shooter to assess the situation and make sure it's a safe shot," Mark Birkhauser, president-elect of the International Hunter Education Association and hunter education coordinator in New Mexico, told The Associated Press.

But Donnie Buckland of the national hunting group Quail Unlimited said it was Whittington's duty to alert Cheney that he'd changed positions and was standing nearby.

"It would be like someone walking out on a golfing course and he gets bumped upside the head, then it wouldn't be the golfer's fault, would it?" Buckland asked.

Fox called Cheney "a very good shot."

Fox said he did not see anything humorous in the incident.

There were serious issues to be addressed, such as why the incident was not disclosed for 18 hours, a topic that led to a heated White House press briefing Monday.

However, many others did.

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There was anticipation for how Jay Leno, David Letterman and "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart might deal with this. There were cheeky newspaper headlines and one-liners shared by e-mail.

How someone would react might break along the lines of red states and blue states, especially in such politically divisive times.

But it might also just be funny.

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"You start with a person in a position of power and authority who screws up, that's funny," explained Lawrence Mintz, a professor and director of the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies at the University of Maryland.

"That he's a Republican who strongly supports gun rights and the National Rifle Association, that adds another layer of humor. There is also the humorous irony that if the situation were reversed _ that if Whittington had accidentally shot Cheney _ then the Secret Service would've plugged him. You've got plenty of ironies making it a humorous incident."

Mintz pointed out that all the humor would be lost if the victim died or was gravely wounded. But Whittington is expected to recover.

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Hours after the shooting was revealed Sunday afternoon, liberal talk show host and comedian Al Franken weighed in.

"You know who's doing a `there but for the grace of God go I?' Scalia," Franken wrote on The Huffington Post Web site, in reference to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who also has hunted alongside Cheney.

Not to be outdone, conservative radio broadcaster Rush Limbaugh offered this joke on his show Monday: "Would you rather go hunting with Dick Cheney or riding in a car over a bridge with Ted Kennedy?" (The punchline: At least Cheney takes you to hospital.)

Limbaugh then criticized the media for covering "one of the dumbest stories ever."

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While the U.S. press has been mostly restrained in its coverage (a notable exception: The Philadelphia Daily News ran a photo of Cheney holding a rifle under the headline, "Deadeye Dick"), foreign newspapers had a field day. The Herald in Scotland ran with "Cheney bags a lawyer." "Duck! Cheney blasts pal" wrote the Sun in England.

Even the Humane Society of the United States, which used the shooting to push its anti-hunting efforts, saw the humor in the situation.

"How could you not? I do have a sense of humor," said Heidi Prescott, senior vice president of campaigns.

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Political science professor David Robertson at the University of Missouri St. Louis said he couldn't predict what political repercussions the incident might carry. But it did hearken to a scene from a movie.

"Remember the `Christmas Story' movie? You can shoot your eye out?" Robertson said, referring to the classic in which a young boy's mother warns him to be careful with a new Red Ryder BB gun.

Mintz, of the Center for Humor Studies, said there was fodder here for everyone, no matter the politics.

"It's funny even if you like Cheney," he said. "But it's funnier if you don't."

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